Ethical Style: D.I.Y Clothing Mods

The Research Department (a.k.a. my brilliant and lovely wife) shipped me this article thru the ether the other day: Ethical Style: Don’t Donate Clothes, Repurpose Them – Lifestyle – GOOD. Now, I haven’t delved too deeply into the whole thrift shop-clothing-rags-overseas thing, so there may be an environmental or ethical wrinkle (pun intended) to donating to thrift shops. Nevertheless I think that, as with so many things, It All Depends.

I have seen firsthand the mountains of stuff that Goodwill Outlets have to process, and I admit that there’s a fair amount that probably isn’t worth buying. But whose fault is all that stuff? Certainly not Goodwill’s. Planned obsolescence, conspicuous consumption, and low, low prices on all sorts of things we probably don’t actually need have surely played a much larger role in the accumulation of all that detritus. Goodwill and other thrifts are just trying to make some money and help some people find jobs. Don’t blame the vulture for the carcass.

Anyway…the bulk of the article is about the “F” in “T.H.R.I.F.T”— what I called “fix-its,” or repairing and repurposing used clothing to live another life. Now that I think of it, shop rags are repurposing, aren’t they? Anyway…the author’s premise is spot-on. Sewing, like cooking, is a skill that many modern Americans lack for many of the same reasons: the gradual move out of rural communities and into cities; the forced, piecemeal interdependence of industrial society; the pull of “progress” and “modernity” away from manual labor as a dignified pastime; those low, low prices again; and others, I am sure.

As a result, the work has been outsourced to the low end of the wage scale and the skills have gotten somewhat lost among the general population. It seems to me also that modern (polyester) fabrics are less well-suited to re-use than the classics: cotton, wool, linen, etc. I’m sure this is purely a coincidence. Yeah. That’s it. Anyway…I must confess to little skill in this area. I can replace a button or mend a small rip in a seam, but that’s the extent of my training. The concept intrigues me, though, as it’s right in line with my DIY philosophy. We even have a sewing machine downstairs, though I think it is lacking a few essential parts. It’s also in a few pieces.

Some assembly required

And yet…there’s a technical curve I’ll have to overcome along with developing the other skills; a new machine to learn the use and care of; new lingo and accessories. Time and effort into developing a skill set and a body of knowledge sufficient to the task will have to come from somewhere else, and I don’t know where that place is. I think I’ll stick with the basics, buttons and seams, for now. Then we’ll see about getting the sewing machine fixed; that’s something I already know I’m good at.

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About poorlocavore

Welcome to one family's journey towards a smaller food-mile footprint on a small food budget. How do our choices affect the environment, and what influences our choices? Read on and find out what I'm learning.
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15 Responses to Ethical Style: D.I.Y Clothing Mods

  1. I have been thinking about this lately too. Why do I not know how to use a sewing machine? Our modern lives seem built around the notion that we should just scrap our possessions as they become imperfect and buy new ones. Have you read Your Money Or Your Life? (Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin) If you haven’t, I think you’d appreciate it.

    • poorlocavore says:

      I started it while ago. Then, I got to the point where I was supposed to do that whole inventory of income and assets and such, and set it aside. I was going full-tilt with the food research and just didn’t have the time. But I definitely appreciate their point of view.

  2. Patience says:

    It’s depressing to pass our local Salvation Army store early in the morning and see the mountains of stuff that people dump there in the middle of the night–stuff that isn’t suitable for donation like used mattresses and stained couches, and filthy bags of clothes that are no doubt moldy and stained. Why do we have all this stuff in the first place?

    • poorlocavore says:

      That’s the big question; even the idea of repurposing presumes a surplus. It seems the nature of capitalism is part of the problem, where we (as a society) measure growth by how much we consume.

  3. mttop72 says:

    Oh, how I wish I were nearby to teach you the art of sewing, and the technical points of using a sewing machine. If I can help from a distance, let me know.

  4. Maria S says:

    This is something that I try to do, too. It does take time to learn, and there can be a fairly hefty starting price (both in terms of money and effort), but it is worth it. My latest project has been to find a use for all the old and stained t-shirts that I know I will never again wear in their current form. That, plus I have a bunch of things that need just tiny tiny alterations: buttons re-sewn, holes patched, hems hemmed, etc.

    Have you been to the fabric store downtown? I think it is called The Quilted Heart. I’ve been there a few times to get some basic supplies. A helpful and friendly white-haired guy works there, and he gave me the name and phone number of a person in Moscow who repairs sewing machines, in case you need to find someone who does. I would offer to help you, but I don’t know much about machines; I am still trying to discover the reason why my sewing machine has been squeaking ever since I moved here, and I hope that someday soon my trusted method of applying machine oil to any place I can think of will magically take effect and stop the squeaking.

    • poorlocavore says:

      I haven’t yet; I’ve only recently had any interest in this. It won’t surprise you to know that my youngest is an avid (and competent) stitcher. I’ll remember to check that place out if/when I need help. Thanks!

  5. Sewing machines have no clutch and no brake, just one pedal. Easy! (Watch your fingers). Don’t worry if you can’t get it back in that sewing machine table, if it has 4 even feet it will sit on the kitchen table just fine. The good news about the lack of sewing: basic sewing instruction books are usually available in abundance at public libraries (another underutilized resource). There are lots of books about adjusting tension and oiling. Older machines (which this one appears to be) tend to be mechanical and not computerized – so like cars, they are easier to fix if you can get the parts. Tension (the machine’s, not yours) is the source of many problems. You can find out how to adjust the tension on the web.

    Re old t-shirts, Maria, a couple of possible uses:
    1. Teach your kids to tie-dye, then they can wear them as painting smocks.
    2. Cut off just the body, dye them, sew up one end, insert a pillow form, and sew them shut – great pillows for picnics or the beach, because you won’t care if they get wet or dirty!
    3. And there’s always the inevitable cleaning rags…

    Your enthusiasm for frugality gives me hope for the future!

    • poorlocavore says:

      I did just recently demote a pile of formerly white undershirts to the shop-rag bin. They make decent dishcloths too.

      • poorlocavore says:

        Now that I think about it, one could cut pairs of dishtowel-sized rectangles (front & back) from an old t-shirt, stitch around the perimeter, and have a nice, double-thick utility towel. You’re welcome 😉

  6. roxie says:

    I have done this for years. Buy something at Goodwill or Salvation Army thrift store and then take it apart with a seam ripper. Press flat. Now you have a nice amount of fabric to make something new for yourself. A man’s suit is great. I always look for wool. There is enough fabric to make a nice suit for myself. When I worked full time I was able to wear very nice clothes for very little money.
    When you take an item apart save the zippers and buttons.
    I learned to sew at my grandmother’s knee. When I was 11 I was making my own clothes.

    • poorlocavore says:

      Roxie, welcome! Thanks for the good advice. That’s great that you’ve been able to do that. It was also great that you were able to learn such a valuable skill from your grandmother, and that you’ve essentially grown up knowing how to do that. In socio-economic terms, your ability is a form of capital. There are many of us, however, without that advantage. I only picked up enough from my clothing-making mother to do buttons and hems; my sister made her own wedding dress after majoring in costume design in college. So for someone to want to get into it in mid-life, with little or no background, is a horse of another color. What I’m seeing in my own situation is that I’m going to have to not do something I already do in order to take up sewing, to get the machine running and learn what I need to know. It’s likely worth it in the long run, but getting up to speed is going to take time and effort.

      • Momof5 says:

        I love this thread! (Oops, pun not intended but kinda funny.) I had a former home ec teacher for a neighbor in grade school, and when she discovered that home ec had been discontinued in the schools, she gathered half a dozen of us neighborhood girls (I have a memory of her plucking us off fenceposts and out of trees – I don’t think that’s true, but that is where we would rather have been) and spending a week teaching us to cook and sew. We went home with pleated skirts and actual blouses: fitted shoulders, darts, buttons on a placket, the whole bit. I didn’t pick up a needle or thread again for years, but when I was dirt poor and thought my kids needed fancy Halloween costumes, I believed I could sew . . . so I did. It’s not rocket science. Hand sew for awhile – I mend things sitting in bed on Saturday mornings; it’s an excuse to stay in bed a few minutes longer – so that when you turn to the machine, you will be so amazed at how much faster and easier it is that you will do what it takes to keep your machine running. Have fun!

      • poorlocavore says:

        That sounds like fun. I remember my Home Ec teacher from junior high school. She was from Long Island, and she pronounced darts “dahts,” which was too funny. I mended a dress shirt the other day, where the pocket was ripped. Easy-peasy.

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